Denial of Brain Damage in Boxing: 1928-1961

By Matt Chaney,

Posted Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Copyright ©2016 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

1928: ‘some brain experts deny that punch drunk exists,’ says Dr. Harrison S. Martland

Nov. 18, 1928, Baltimore Sun MD, p.LT12

Blood Clots Make Fighter Punch Drunk

Tiny Hemorrhages In Brain Responsible For Condition Says Physician Who Studied It

How hundreds of tiny blood clots, each no larger than a pinhead, may form inside the gray matter of the human brain and ruin its ability to think or to control the body, is explained by Dr. Harrison S. Martland, of Newark, N.J., in reporting to the American Medical Association the first scientific study every made of the unusual prize fighter’s disease, called “punch drunk.”

So little has this condition been studied by physicians, Dr. Martland reports, that there are even some brain experts who deny that it exists. Nevertheless Dr. Martland has compiled a list of twenty-three former fighters who show its symptoms; chiefly dragging of the legs or arms, uncertainties of movement and slowness in thinking and in speech.

Every experienced promoter or manager of fights or fighters is familiar, he says, with the occasional appearance of these symptoms in former sparring partners of hard-hitting champions or in other fighters accustomed to take heavy punishment, especially blows on the head or face. In an accident case which came under Dr. Martland’s observation a blow on the head caused, it was found on postmortem, hundreds of the tiny blood clots, each due to the rupture of a small blood vessel.

Not much blood escaped from any one break, but the presence of the many small clots in the substance of the brain damaged the organ, in this case fatally.

It is very probable, Dr. Martland believes, that repeated severe jars to the head like those received in prize fights may cause just such blood vessel ruptures, resulting in the disturbances of movement or of thinking which the “punch drunk” ex-fighter shows.

1929:  Carnegie Report cautions NCAA schools against hiring doctors who are sports fans

Nov. 9, 1929, Jefferson City Post-Tribune MO, p. 6

Daily Health Service

Editor’s Note: This is the last of four articles by [JAMA editor] Dr. Morris Fishbein on the hygiene of athletics.

By Dr. Morris Fishbein

Editor Journal of The American Medical Association and of Hygeia, the Health Magazine.

In its survey of the hygiene of athletics training, the special committee, working under the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, emphasizes its conviction that athletics if properly conducted may be made to contribute significantly  to the physical health of students.

They point out that exercises in general, and athletics in particular, are not a panacea for all forms of ill health from flat feet to melancholia.

Another point of view is that athletics are in the nature of remedies to be prescribed for one person in one strength and for another in another strength, and not to be at all for other persons.

The committee is convinced that adequate physical examinations and adequate medical care and supervision of athletics are not yet available in most institutions. It is urged that in case of accident, the physician and not the trainer should go on the field to determine the nature of the injury and advisability of continuing play. There must not be participation in an excessive number of sports.

Furthermore, the physician should not be chosen because of his super enthusiasm for athletics and his desire to win at any cost, but rather for his ability to judge in the type of injury which he is most often asked to see.

Some of the hygenic practices associated with high school and college athletics are so filthy that they would not be tolerated for a moment in any other department of life. it has been found that the same athletic clothing is worn without washing for a long period of time and in the case of track athletics, not infrequently for four years. On the football field, the common drinking cup, water bottle and sponge are used in an exceedingly unsanitary manner.

The general uncleanliness of athletic clothing, locker rooms and wrestling mats is largely responsible for the spread of ringworm and infections of the skin.

The most dangerous feature of all is the constant emphasis on winning at any costs. In order to correct this emphasis, there must be a change in the point of view.

1931:  ‘shell shock’ condition isn’t caused by warfare, say doctors and officers of militaries worldwide

Aug. 10, 1931, Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger IN, p.4


This country has been hearing a lot about shell-shock since the war and many have been acquainted with the former service men assumed to be suffering from this condition. According to the sixth international congress of military medicine and pharmacy, held at The Hague, there is no such thing as shell-shock and the term has been misapplied. A New York health commissioner was one of the delegates to the session, which discussed a variety of problems arising from wartime ills.

The medical men were convinced that the so-called victims of shell-shock entered the war already suffering from some form of neurosis. It is, of course, easily apparent that some types succumbed more readily to the excitement and strain than others. In its formal findings, the medical congress declared that the war had not created psychosis of a new type and that no new morbid entity had been observed. The terms “shell shock” and “post concussion syndrome,” the congress reported, “have been wrongly applied at times.”

In connection to criminal cases attributable to so-called shell shock, the congress recommended strongly that penal responsibility of the patient should be determined by a psychiatrist. That plan, of course, is only fair to both the prisoner and to society. The medical conference urged that an elaborate system of handling psychoneurotic persons should be instituted in war time. It also suggested a broader method of treatment for all those suffering from nervous disorders, dividing such victims into several classes and treating those deemed curable.

The report of the congress regarding shell-shock may provoke some discussion in this country when veterans are told that their condition is nothing more than a malady they already had before the war. It is true, of course, that a number of ills ascribed to army service were scarcely attributable to that cause. The cases of so-called shell shock, however, had usually been eliminated from that category.—Indianapolis Star

1932:  boxing promoter says ‘bad habits’ cause ‘punch drunk’ condition, not punches, throughout the general population

June 5, 1932, Hartford Courant CT, p.C5

Fighters Are Not Alone In Being ‘Punch Drunk’

Seattle, Wash.—(AP)—Bankers, bookkeepers, street car men or any other persons are just as apt to become “punch drunk” as boxers, declares Buddy Bishop, Seattle promoter, who has been connected with the boxing business for 40 years.

“Dissipations and not punches bring a boxer to the ‘punch drunk’ stage,” explained Bishop. “Bad liquor, later hours, unnatural habits and bad associates will make any person groggy in time. Boxers do not get ‘punch drunk’ from beatings.”

1936:  ‘boxing folks always say something else causes the wreck of a once-normal human being,’ scribe observes

March 27, 1936, Brooklyn Daily Eagle NY, p.28



Believe it or not, an English hospital is looking into this grisly business of fighters going “punch-drunk.” It wants to know what cause that, as our old friend Moran and Mack used to say, What is the matter with the poor was once explained by a Mr. B. Shaw. He said it was poverty. You become wealthy if you make a lot of money. Old age, it is now generally conceded, is caused by celebrating too many birthdays. And as surely, too many collisions with upholstered knuckles will produced the punch-drunk fighter.

It is all very simple, yet it is strange how many people like to make something very complex out of it. Particularly folks who live on and by the fight game. They are the last to admit that mere wallopings scramble a fighter’s brain, put mumbles in his speech, and locomotor ataxia in his nervous system. I have discussed the subject with hundreds of them, but usually the answer is the same. Always it is something else that caused the wreck of a once normal human being.

This is a case, undoubtedly, of the wish being father to the thought. But is is remarkable what a variety of thoughts, fancy flights of the imagination then can bring to bear on the subject. I once knew a young heavyweight of the give-and-take type whose eyesight became affected from too much punching about the head. Facing certain blindness he quit the ring. After that I met his manager. It was too bad he had to take so much punishment, I commiserated, only to learn that wasn’t the case at all!

“He didn’t get that from punchings,” explained the manager. “About a year ago he was in an automobile accident and the shock affected an optic nerve. He could never see right after that.” The manager talked as if he meant it. Possibly he had given the excuse so often that even he himself had come to believe it.


This form of self-hypnotism makes the subject construe beatings as merely incidental to the punch-drunk condition. One of the favorite “trances” of the sort has to do with dissipation and the fighting man. When a pug “goes bad,” mentally, you are always told that he tried to mix fighting with gay carryings-on.

One cannot fight in a weakened state, you are told, which is quite true. But the fact that few fighters do seems to be conveniently overlooked. They train hard for fights, and doctors who pass on them for condition always pronounce them in perfect shape, else they do not fight.

However, assume a scrapper is given to dissipation, you still find it is the the thrashings in the ring that class him as “punchy.” Many people dissipate more or less, a whole life long, but they do not become punch-drunk. They may suffer in other ways, but the only way one can become punch-drunk is by getting punched.

Where To Get It

Thus, if all the fighters who have the “wobbles” in their gait, and the “gargles” in their talk had never fought they wouldn’t be “punch-drunk,” would they? They couldn’t get it working in an office, driving a truck, painting a house, or along similar healthful trails of life. Only in the ring can they get it, and it is a fact that the clean living gladiator is as susceptible to it as his careless living fellow battler. Simply, the human frame was never designed to stand such persistent, skilled and savage hammering. But Cauliflower folk alone will not admit this, and the reason is natural. No one llikes to believe his life job is such as to drive him daffy.

And so an English fight trainer theorizes: “If only these men were to look after themselves more they would never reach the condition the doctors are seeking a cure for. For at least a week after a fight they would eat sparingly, take plenty of fresh air and hot baths, and also go in for massage. If this were done there would be far fewer punch-drunks.”

But a former champion fighter once told me that he saw Bob Fitzsimmons slam a rival on the temple, and that the victim was looney from this one wallop for the rest of his life. Just from that one soul-searing smash.

Maybe that wallop made him forget to eat sparingly, take plenty of fresh air and go in for massage.

1936:  Dempsey blames fighters for ‘punch drunk’ disease, not boxing

May 8, 1936, Scranton Republican PA, p.20


By Joe Polakoff, Sports Editor

PUNCH DRUNKS…Fighters get punch drunk because they let down too quickly after hard battles, says Jack Dempsey.

“Instead of sleeping and lolling around for a couple of days after a fight, they usually rush out of their dressing rooms and hit for a big party,” says Dempsey. “That relieves the pressure too fast and softens ’em up quickly. They become easier targets the next time out.”

Dempsey advocates two managers for each fighter, one to get matches and arrange the business end. The other to train the fighter properly.

1936:  new UMaryland boxing coach promises safe, old-time fighting in his program of the NCAA

Sept. 17, 1936, Washington Post DC, p.X19

Ring Official Once Fought As a Pro

Coach Has Been Referee for 30 Years, Sports Editor, Promoter

The University of Maryland’s stock on the collegiate clouting market zoomed yesterday with the announcement that Maj. Harvey. L. (Heinic) Miller, long a prominent figure in the fight game, had accepted the position of boxing coach for the Terrapin beak bangers.

Miller, who is secretary of the District Boxing Commission and editor of Our Navy, a monthly service publication, succeeds Capt. John W. Harmon and will be assisted by Lyman McAboy, a prominent contender in past Southern Conference championship meets.

Himself t one time a very good professional fighter, Miller has been prominently identified with the boxing business since his retirement from the ring. For a number of years he served as sports editor of a local paper and once was the leading promoter hereabouts in the days when boxing was “bootlegged” to the fistic fans in matches held just outside the District.

30 Years a Referee

Miller has been a referee for the past 30 years. He has served as an official referee for the Eastern Intercollegiate Boxing Association and the Southern Conference since 1925.

The major participated in 205 bouts during his fighting career. All but 22 of them were professional engagements, and he lost only six. he won the bantamweight championship of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps in a tournament at Newport, R.I., in 1906—two years after he started fighting. …

Miller is a veteran of the World War and saw service in Cuba, the Phillipines, China, Nicaragua and Mexico. he is a major in the Fleet Corps Reserves, commanding the Fifth Battalion of that organization.

Hopes For Real Boxers

“I want to get out a larger squad, preach loyalty and training,” said Miller yesterday, in discussing his appointment. “I shall actually get in the ring with my boys a couple of hours each day and see if we can’t do with a bunch of smart college ringmen something like Jack Blackburn has done with Louis. By that, I mean that we will try to bring back the 1900 style of feinting, counter-punching and on-balance hitting which was the vogue in the days when haphazard punches to non-vital spots were just as rare as tin ears and punch-drunk fisticuffians.”

1937:  ‘fear exaggerated’ for boxing in schools, NCAA, and benefits outweigh risks, says ex-champ

Feb. 5, 1937, Baltimore Sun MD, p.16


Hopes Virginia Will Not Ban Sport After Death of V.M.I. Boy

(By The Associated Press)

Richmond, Va., Feb. 4—Gene Tunney, former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, expressed the hope today that intercollegiate boxing would not be curtailed in Virginia as the result of the fatal injuries received by a V.M.I. cadet in a bout last week.

In a letter written to the Richmond Times-Dispatch from Washington, Tunney described the sport as a combination of “fine vigorous exercise with character building.”

Commenting on the action of his old Marine commander, Gen. John A. Lejeune, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, in canceling the ring schedule of the school after the death of Cadet W.J. Eastham, Tunney urged that the sport not be abandoned after this season.

“General Lejeune, my commander, loves a good scrap as well as anyone,” Tunney said. “He has always been very much interested in boxing. Of course, anyone would have closed the schedule under such circumstances.

“But to think that such an accident, serious as it is to the boy’s parents and friends, would bring about a movement to curtail all intercollegiate boxing throughout Virginia, is, I believe, rather saddening, particularly for those who have pictured the sport of boxing coming into its own through school and college interest.”

Referring to an editorial in the paper referring to “mental incompetency, due to pummeling of craniums,” Tunney said:

“It is my belief–after a long experience with amateur and professional boxers–that that fear is exaggerated. The punishment a young man in good physical condition sustains in a college boxing contest is insignificant compared with that which football players sustain in a game, or members of the crew bear in the course of a race.”

Pro Game Different

“Of course, when they change the atmosphere of the amateur ring to that of the professional ring, there is danger of eventual ‘punch drunk’ or incompetence in proportion to the increase and severity of the punishment.

“However, school and college boxing should not be concerned with these remote possibilities and, as one who has gone through hundreds of amateur and professional contests (not altogether unscathed, but still sound, I hope), and who has found only cleanness of body and development of character–the reward for those who know the wisdom of moderation—may appeal to you to throw the influence of your paper against the movement to curtail amateur school and college boxing in Virginia.

1937:  ‘punch drunk’ is unproven theory, non-existent in boxing, say ring supporters

April 26, 1937, Anniston Star AL, p.4

Punch Drunk

The least welcome topic of conversation among fight managers and promoters is boxing’s most prevalent occupational affliction: punch drunkenness.

Because they give the boxing game a brutal, unwholesome aura, “slap happy” or “punchy” ex-fighters, who have lost their mental balance from abnormal pounding on the head, are usually committed quietly to private or state institutions, occasionally taken care of generously by their former associates, and almost always forgotten thereafter.

Because even extensive laboratory tests have thus far failed to provide medical men with a complete explanation of this abnormality, only theory supports charges that the mumbling, hazy derelicts of boxing got that way from taking excessive punishment in the ring. Consequently, many of boxing’s ardent supporters defend the game by disavowing the existence of the affliction.—Literary Digest

1937:  allegedly punch-drunk boxers should blame themselves because many ex-boxers feel great, says ex-champion

May 26, 1937, Baltimore Sun MD, p.19

If Kid Has Any Knack, Boxing Is Career, Leonard Tells Rice

Ex-Champ Scores Warners—Points to Opportunities For Earnings and Broader Life If Boy Will Learn Hi Trade, Doesn’t Dissipate—And Has Equipment

By Grantland Rice

New York, May 25—Benny Leonard will argue with you all day if you intimate that professional boxing is not a desirable career for a young man—a young who, of course, is equipped to get somewhere with his fists.

“Naturally,” Benny says, “I wouldn’t advise a boy to start boxing professional who was doomed to stay in the preliminary ranks–anymore than I would advise him to be a tailor if I didn’t think he could make a suit of clothes. …”

“I love boxing. Boxing was very good to me–and there is no reason shy it shouldn’t be just as good to any other boys who takes it seriously and conducts himself decently.”

Why single out fighters?

“Why is it you newspaper fellows are always advising kids to stay away from the ring? Because you think they will spend the best years of their lives getting punched around and wind up with nothing, and that they’ll be lucky if they don’t wind up walking on their heels, eh?

“Why don’t you look at it this way? If a boy takes proper care of himself and learns how to box, the punishment he takes in the ring isn’t going to do him any harm. I can point out to you dozens of fellows–some of them ex-champions and some fellows in the ring for a long time–who are healthy middle-aged men and either comfortably fixed, or , with their ring days behind them, are earning good livings at something else.

“You say you can show me a lot of broken-down fighters, too. That’s right. But I can show you a lot of broken-down fellows who never had on a boxing glove in their lives. Misfortunes or dissipation have ruined many a ball players, jockey, tennis player, newspaper man or business man, haven’t they? You know some fellows who never were fighters, but who are all washed up at 35 or 40, don’t you?

“But they aren’t punch-drunk, you say. All right, Now let me tell you something: There is no need for a fighter to get punch-drunk, either. The fighter who winds up on his heels is the fighter who never learned his business in the first place and, in the second, weakened himself and undermined his health by dissipation. And I may be wrong, but I think that those characteristics aren’t exactly peculiar to fighters.”

 1938:  Navy researchers suggest boxing inexperience typically causes ‘punch drunk‘ disease, which they term as ‘dementia pugilistica’

Jan. 16, 1938, New York Times NY, p.67

It’s ‘Dementia Pugilistica’ And Not ‘Punch Drunk’

Special Correspondence, The New York Times

WASHINGTON–Uncle Sam’s navy doctors do not care for the term “punch drunk.” They admit it is colorful and “scarcely requires elucidation,” but say it tends to encumber nosological nomenclature.

The term “dementia pugilistica” has been coined instead for persons suffering delusions of pugilistic prowess. It would apply to any one who puts up his “dukes” at the sound of a trolley-car bell, or who habitually scowls, snorts, blows, grimaces, crouches or squares off like a boxer.

A recent government bulletin explains that the most typical examples of this disorder are usually found among the less expert boxers, particularly as concerns defensive ingenuity—boxers capable, nevertheless, of absorbing inordinate punishment.

1938:  reports of boxing ‘punch drunk’ condition are ‘grossly exaggerated,’ says UWisconsin neurologist, adding that ‘proper coaching, officiating and medical supervision’ will eliminate all chance of the problem at colleges

June 24, 1938, Baltimore Sun MD, p.17

Boxing Weight Limits Lifted

Colleges Raise Bantams to 120 Pounds and Feathers to 127

(By the Associated Press)

Annapolis, June 23–The weight limits of two classes of college boxing were increased today by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in order to relieve boxers from the strain of reducing their poundage.

The committee also decided to hold the annual national intercollegiate boxing meet at the University of Wisconsin on March 30, 31 and April 1.

After discussion had brought out that most colleges have had trouble in finding boxers light enough to compete in the present bantamweight and featherweight classes, the committee boosted the bantamweight limit from 115 to 120 pounds and the featherweight class limit from 125 to 127 pounds.

Other Classes Unchanged

The other classes authorized by the rules were unchanged. They are lightweight, 135 pounds; welterweight, 145 pounds; senior welterweight, 155 pounds; middleweight, 165 pounds; light-heavyweight 175 pounds,and unlimited weight, over 175 pounds.

The official group also decreed that boxers in the future cannot weight more than the top weight of the class in which they will compete. This eliminates the old rules which allowed boxers to weight four pounds more than the weight limit.

Another change was the adoption of a rule making it mandatory for boxers to weight in four hours before a meet, eliminating the optional clause which allowed weighing in during the four-hour period.

It was also agreed that by mutual consent between competing institutions, teams of more than eight men may be used by matching two or men in any of the weight classes. This will allow coaches by agreement to stage two bantamweight, heavyweight or any other class bouts they desire in an official meet.

Must Stick To Class

A section was added to the rules to prevent a boxer entering any tournament in a weight class in which he has not participated in at least 50 percent of the bouts during the dual meets of the season. This would prohibit a boxer who has fought in two weights during the season, but a majority in the heavier weight, from training down to enter a tournament in the lighter weight.

Dr. W.J. Blackwenn, professor of nervous and mental diseases and boxing representative at the University of Wisconsin, declared that reports of “punch-drunk” college fighters have been grossly exaggerated. He pointed out that the few cases reported have little foundation in fact, and that by proper training, coaching, medical supervision and officiating, the condition cannot occur in college boxing.

1938:  amateur boxing organization blames poorly constructed gloves for ‘punch drunk,’ scribe writes

June 1, 1938, Hartford Courant CT, p.11

Calling ‘Em Right

With Bert Keane, Sports Editor

Change Your Gloves

Beginning today the Amateur Athletic Union is imposing new regulations in the use of the boxing gloves by simon-pure fighters. Observations by officers of the union have shown that many types of boxing gloves now being used are poorly constructed, thus causing fighters to become punch drunk.

The union contends that it is the policy to teach the youth of American to fight scientifically and to defend themselves properly. The intention of pleasing the crowd is not the foremost aim.

Heretofore, although gloves were of the regulation weight of 8 or 10 ounces the padding was poorly distributed, much of it being around the wrists instead of covering the knuckles. Other gloves contained padding of a poor grade which soon separated causing injury to both fighters.

Under the new ruling all gloves must bear the AAU seal before they can be used in regulation amateur tourneys or exhibitions.

1939:  boxing only needs regulation and proper training, coaching, to limit a fighter’s exposure, says ex-champ

July 16, 1939, Los Angeles Times CA, p.13


By Johnny Kilbane

as told to Paul Zimmerman

A few weeks ago I sat at ringside in Los Angeles during a series of bouts which brought loud and frequent protests from the people who paid their good money to see a display of the manly art of boxing.

“Make ’em fight! Make ’em fight!” …

I am convinced boxers today are, potentially, just as willing, just as courageous as they were in the 20-round days.

The trouble lies, to my way of thinking, with the present-day system.

In many instances there is faulty control over the sport by commissions that make boxing a political football, allowing it, oftentimes, to become a racket.

Then there are the chiseling promoters. One of the most vicious harms today is the effort to put the game on a syndicate basis.

Many managers—as many as 90 percent—either don’t know their business or do but fail to protect their fighters. And then, the seconds; they often harm a fighter more than the opponent does.

What do I suggest?

The best plan I know of would be to put boxing under a national commissioner—a strong man who is all-powerful. such a man as baseball has in Judge Kenesaw Landis. Qualifications? Well, he would have to be a man of integrity, a good businessman and a man who knows boxing.

Where can we find such a man?

What’s the matter with Gene Tunney?

Then let this commissioner appoint supervisors in the various sections or States; men like Ritchie, your boxing inspector in Southern California, or Jim McLarnin, the former world’s welterweight champion.

A commissioner with fortitude could keep boxers, managers and promoters in line with the threat of a national suspension that means something. Today a man can be barred in California and fight in almost any other State in the Union.

Let’s start with the fighter. Most of our present-day boxers come up from the amateur ranks. And I’d like to say here and now that many of our so-called simon-pure fighters actually get more money than the professionals who fight preliminaries. I think this sham is bad for the youth to start with.

The majority of our present-day fighters are poorly trained. Defense is a lost art. There’s too much stress on punching. A young boy goes into the gymnasium, puts on a headgear, dons oversized gloves and starts swinging.

He doesn’t learn defense because he doesn’t get hurt with all that protection. As a result modern fighting has become installment mayhem. Raw clubbing has adulterated the most skillful of all sports.

Training has become a sham. For this reason we have few fighters who could go through 20 rounds of training, let alone a long fight.

Take what I consider my hardest fight. It was held in a barn outside of Cleveland back in 1909–winner take all. …

We have too many punch-drunk fighters reeling around our gyms and on our fight cards today because the commissions, the promoters and the managers—the men who should know–don’t tell a poor boxer to get out before he is washed up. …

Let me repeat that properly trained and properly matched boxers will give a good account of themselves if permitted to do do. …

I don’t want my readers to think this criticism of the boxing game means I have soured on the sport or my many friends in it.

Boxing was good to me. I was paid $2,300 when I won the title here but I received $100,000 when I defended the crown for the last time and lost to Eugene Criqui in New York in 1923. I knew it was time for me to quit and I did.

At 50 I’m in fine health; my features are unmarked and I still have my self-respect. That’s important.

My criticism of boxing has been solely for the good of the game I still love. I only hope you place the blame on the right shoulders when you go to a bad bout and feel the urge to shout:

“Make ’em fight!”

1947:  boxers get ‘punch drunk’ from poor training, gloves, and football is just as bad for any such condition, scribe writes

Oct. 23, 1947, Mattoon Journal Gazette IL, p.9

Fair or Foul

By Lawton Carver

International News Service Sports Editor

New York—One of the great innovations currently needed in football is a game called off on a technical knockout.

When a fighter is hopelessly beaten and appears about to be permanently bruised, the official or officials have the right to step in and stop it. In football, it seems, a man doesn’t begin to show his courage until his bones begin to stick out through his jersey. …

The educators who get up on a rostrum occasionally and pop off about the evils of football always overlook that they are the ones who permit these slaughters. …

It is unbelievably strange that in the prize ring where pug-uglies take their swipes at each other, there is official humaneness, while in football the little guy playing the big guy is expected to take it until he is carried off the field. …

The general public probably would be surprised to know that there is a considerable amount of post traumatic encephalitis among football players.

That triple jointed word when translated bluntly means punch-drunk.

The prize-fighter actually gets most of his punch-drunkenness while working out In training, big gloves are used and the attempt to avoid punches is negligible.

Yet, with these big gloves on, fighters can hit each other hard enough to jolt the brain, tiny little hemorrhages in the blood vessels are set up and the next thing you know a guy has the equivalent of a locomotor ataxia and a mouth full of marbles.

In football it works the same way—only different. The guy’s brains are scrambled—or those blood vessels are ruptured—from belts on the head in close and from being bounced around the ground and kicked occasionally.

Some of the veteran pro football players talk with much the same mumble that you hear among fighters who have been swatted too much. This is set up while they still are in college.

1947:  college football players are ‘punchy,’ not boxers, says letter-writer

Oct. 5, 1947, Chapel Hill Daily Tar Heel NC, p.2

Write Away

Consider the Sport Boxing

Fellow Students:

Boxing has been dropped from the winter schedule of sport activities. You probably didn’t know about this until now. ..

I was told that boxing was dropped by the Athletic Council because of lack of interest, too many nose injuries, and the large number of undesirable characters that have boxed for the University of North Carolina. These reasons were given to me by a member of the Athletic Council and I feel that the latter reasoning is an insult to all former and present members of the University’s boxing team. …

As for nose injuries or any kind of injuries, I don’t believe that boxing in college even on a percentage basis, is anywhere close to football in that category. How many boxers in college do you know that have received permanent injuries or have become punchy due to boxing with ten ounce gloves?

Sincerely yours,

Dick Young

1953:  ‘Most Boxing Injuries Can Be Prevented,’ headline states over doctor’s newspaper column

July 9, 1953, Winona Republican-Herald MN, p.6

Most Boxing Injuries Can Be Prevented

By H.N. Bundesen, M.D.

Until public clamor over ring fatalities and brutalities caused boxing authorities to take action, the physician had little part to play in professional and amateur boxing. He might, before the bout, stethescope the prize fighters and check their blood pressure and body temperature. He then took his usual seat until it was time to repair the damaged men.

Today in progressive states, medial measures are now being undertaken to protect the fighters. Physicians thoroughly screen the men to make sure that their hearts are in good condition. They examine for the possibility of epilepsy or the tendency to have convulsions.

Brain Waves Measured

In some states, any fighter that is knocked unconscious is required to have an electroencephalogram, which is taken by an instrument that measures the brain waves and determines whether any brain damage has been brought about.

Much damage can be prevented by using eight and ten-ounce gloves rather than the usual six-ounce glove. The old glove used to have loose padding so that it could be shifted away from the knuckles. The more preventive type of glove is made of latex-bound pad.

The resin used to coat the floors of the ring to provide adequate friction is now being replaced by calcium carbonate. This will protect the fighter’s eyes, since the resin is very damaging to the eyes.

Safer Mouth Pieces

New plastic mouth pieces have been perfected so that the shock of jaw blows can be lessened. These are much safer and more effective than the rubber mouth pieces now being used.

The thin canvas mats that were once used are now being replaced by a synthetic soft substance, known as ensolite, which cushions the falls.

Physicians have learned that fighting might give rise to specific diseases. Boxing and repeated blows to the head may result in permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.

Medical and laboratory skills have combined in the fight to protect the fighter from his occupational hazards.

1955:  ‘boxing is relatively safe, with no definite evidence of brain damage in EEG study,’ say doctors

June 6, 1955, Escanaba Daily Press MI, p.12

New York Physician Calls Other Sports Tougher Than Boxing

By Jack Hand

NEW YORK (AP) A New York physician today called boxing “relatively safe” and rated football and pro ice hockey as tougher contact sports.

Dr. Mal Stevens, chairman of the medical advisory board of the New York State Athletic Commission, defended boxing against charges of “barbarism” voiced by a British physician in a speech to the American Medical Assn. at Atlantic City, N.J.

“With proper supervision, equipment, coaching, training and officiating, boxing has become relatively safe,” said Dr. Stevens, former football coach at Yale and New York University.

Danger In All

“There is an element of danger in all contact sports,” he said. “I believe there is more chance of permanent injury in football or pro hockey where the contestants rush at each other from a distance and momentum becomes a factor.

The British physician, Dr. James Hamilton Doggart of Moorsfield Eye Hospital, London, stressed the idea that a boxer can get damaging “cauliflower eyes” (hemorrhages in blood vessels of the eye nourishing the retina and lens).

Denies Brain Damage

“Retinal detachment is not peculiar to boxing,” said Dr. Stevens. “While I was a Yale we had three cases of detached retina. One came from football, another was the result of a boy being hit by a squash racquet and third from an exploding seltzer bottle.”

“The British physician said pre-fight physical exams did little more than “separate the cripples and morons.” He also said “one expert has said that probably no head blow is taken with impunity, and each knockout caused definite and irreparable damage.

“We have taken tests of 2,047 license boxers with the electro-encephalogram,” said Dr. Stevens, “and we’re still looking for definite evidence of any brain damage.”

1959:  ‘the so-called punch-drunk syndrome has been successfully challenged by an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence,’ doctor writes in JAMA

May 27, 1959, Salt Lake Tribune UT, p.13

Sports Mirror by

John Mooney

Tribune Sports Editor

Question Box

“Which of the three major American sports–boxing, baseball or football–causes the most deaths? And what about the great number of boxers who wind up ‘punch drunk.’ Bettey B., Provo.”

ANSWER—Dr. Ira McCowan, in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., asserts, “Many sports authorities, and even some physicians, mistakenly believe the incidence of fatalities and serious injuries is greater in boxing than in any of the other body contact sports.

“The Gonzales report of fatalities in competitive sports, based on a study from 1918 to 1950, found there were more deaths in baseball and football then in boxing in that period. There were 43 deaths in baseball, 22 in football and 21 in boxing.”

Dr. McCowan concludes, “The so-called punch-drunk syndrome has been successfully challenged by an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. The clinical picture and pathological findings associated with this syndrome are not peculiar to boxing alone, but have been found in the average populace as frequently, if not more frequently, than in boxers.”

Dr. Tony Curreri, of the University of Wisconsin, who studied electric-encephalograms on thousands of boxers, says there are as many “punchy” folks going through life as there are ex-boxers who are hearing bells.

1960:  ‘boxing knockouts don’t leave brain damage,’ doctors argue:

June 22, 1960, New York Times NY, p.38

Neurosurgeons Study Knockout Physiology

No Lasting Changes in Brain Produced

But Specialists Do Not Agree on the ‘Punch Drunk’

By Robert K. Plumb

Knockout in the boxing ring occurs when the brain’s organizing network is suddenly overwhelmed by nervous signals, two nerve specialists reported here yesterday.

The ring knockout does not produce lasting changes in the brain, the two asserted at a medical conference on injuries and deaths in professional boxing that was sponsored by the New York State Athletic Commission.

However, specialists at the meeting disagreed on the cause of the phenomenon known as “punch drunk.” One held that a boxer could become punch drunk as a result of repeated knockouts; the other said that knockouts had nothing to do with the condition.

The physiology of the knockout was discussed in studies conducted by Dr. Jefferson Browder, neurosurgeon of the Long Island College Hospital, and Dr. Harry A. Kaplan, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center.

Long Study Made

Dr. Kaplan reported that he and Dr. Browder had long studied knockouts at ringside with a view to furthering medical understanding of unconsciousness common in many medical emergencies. They soon decided that boxing, unless a fighter fell and hit head on the mat, produced only a temporary state of affairs in the brain. They maintained that it was different from being hit by an automobile. …

Others at the conference maintained that professional boxing did not have so many injuries or fatalities as other sports.

The chief medical examiner of New York City, Dr. Milton Helpern, reported on autopsy findings of boxers who died in this city after bouts. …

Dr. Helpern said that he agreed with Dr. Kaplan that the usual ring knockout was a temporary thing and that residual injury to the brain usually could not be established as resulting from blows to the head.

Dr. Abraham M. Rabiner, Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the State University of New York College of Medicine, discussed the punch drunk. He said he did not know what caused the condition. However, Dr. Rabiner speculated that repeated knockouts could injure the brain as a series of small strokes could injure it. …

Dr. Marvin A. [Mal] Stevens, chairman of the medical advisory board of the New York State Athletic Commission, and Dr. Ira A. McCown, the commission’s medical director, were chairmen for scientific sessions that began Monday and ended yesterday at the New York University-Bellevue Medical Center.

Participants at the symposium went to the weighing-in ceremony before the [Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson] fight Monday night and most attended the bout. At the conference were ring physicians and other medical specialists, former boxers and boxing officials.

1961:  AMA Sports Medical members ‘have made a stand in support of intercollegiate boxing,’ scribe writes

Jan. 8, 1961, Idaho State Journal ID, p.11

On The Sidelines

By Tom Morrison

Journal Sports Editor

Can intercollegiate boxing make a comeback and enjoy the prestige it acquired at the height of its success?

We think it can and will do so.

Our opinion is based upon the recent developments during the American Medical Association’s Conference on the Medical Aspects of Sports held in Washington, D.C. The doctors not only sanctioned collegiate boxing but disagreed with the University of Wisconsin’s decision to retire from ring competition.

From a feeble beginning in 1932 and 1936, when bouts were held to qualify college boxers for the Olympic tryouts, the sport progressed like a champion to the National Collegiate Boxing Championships sponsored by the NCAA in 1957, when it hit its peak and Idaho State College won the national crown by taking seven out of ten weight classes and compiled a record number of points.

Since then the intercollegiate sport has taken several verbal blows on the chin from fans, coaches, school officials, writers, experts and even the participants.

Intercollegiate boxing received the hardest blow in its history last April 9 when wiry, 22-year-old Charles Mohr, probably one of the finest collegiate boxing in the nation for the University of Wisconsin and the 165-pound titleholder in ’59, stepped into the ring at Madison to defend his crown against San Jose State’s Stu Bartell and minutes later was in a deep coma from an intracranial hemorrhage following a moderate blow to the head which caused his death eight days later.

The punch rocked the collegiate boxing world. …

From April until the AMA in December, intercollegiate boxing reeled on the ropes from the unfounded verbal beating it was taking from opponents of the sport. …

Finally, the men who know have made a stand supporting intercollegiate boxing… the nation’s doctors and the American Medical Association. …

The doctors at the AMA conference in the nation’s capitol agreed that organized sports are well worth the risk of injury. They disagreed with the University of Wisconsin, which after Mohr’s death retired from intercollegiate boxing.

Time magazine, reporting on the conference in the Dec. 12 issue, said, “Bad injuries in sports happen often enough to keep doctors seriously worried.”

The weekly publication stated the Air Force in 1958 announced that 3,222 of its men had been disabled or killed in sports activities during a single year.

The breakdown of the Air Force injuries and fatalities, in parenthesis, is as follows: Softball 703, football 520, basketball 504, volleyball 137, skeet shooting 76 (1), water sports 359 (75), winter sports 151, baseball 147, hunting 70 (2), hiking 16, and others 536.

Boxing wasn’t listed in the report but was included in the category “others.”

At the conference, Harvard University’s Dr. Thomas B. Quigley said, “Whenever young men gather regularly on green autumn fields, on winter ice, or polished wooden floors to dispute the possession and position of various leather and rubber objects, according to certain rules, sooner or later somebody gets hurt.”

All must agree to this logic, but the big question before the doctors was: Are organized sports worth the risk?

The doctors answered with a QUALIFIED YES.

Furthermore, the doctors stated, boxing was good for youth. The medics agreed with Harvard’s Quigley that “young men must blow off steam and the playing field is much to be preferred to the tavern.”

Dr. Harry A. Kaplan of New York of New York blasted the popular theory that “punch-drunkenness” is brought on by repeated blows to the head in the ring.

He reported that a ten-year study of 3,000 electroencephalograms (recording of the brain’s electric current) taken on boxers showed no relationship between boxing and degenerative brain disease. Dr. Kaplan and said that the “punch drunk” ex-pugilist would probably have suffered the same fate had he never boxed at all.

Protection given intercollegiate boxers with head guards, padded gloves, mouthpieces, proper supervised training and careful scrutiny of the fighters in actual competition by competent officials and ringside doctors leaves very little chance of injury.

Matt Chaney is a researcher, writer, and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football for three decades. Chaney, MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, self-published in 2009Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999. Email him at or visit the website for more information.